Why Would Conservatives Want to Turn This Into a Religious Thing?

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I’m truly perplexed. During the long long hours I spent yesterday watching Endgame, I couldn’t stop thinking about our recent discussion. David French and other intelligent conservatives want to insist that America’s culture wars are primarily “a religious dispute.” I disagree, but the real question is this: Why do conservatives want to say that they are? The answer seems obvious to me, but maybe I’m missing something.


Here’s a little background: In his argument for free campus speech, French made the following assertion:

It’s time to recognize the American culture war for what it is — a religious dispute — and incorporate it into America’s existing religious pluralism.

As strategy, I get it. If conservative ideas are a religious imperative, they will get more respect. If culture wars are religious disputes, then both sides should get equal status, at least from the perspective of the government. But as an intellectually coherent way to understand America’s culture wars, I don’t get it. Lots of people share religious ideas yet find themselves on opposite sides of culture-war issues such as race, gender, and sexuality.

One sharp reader offered a better defense than French did. As PH put it,

we are certainly talking about competing ideas and systems of ethical and metaphysical values, beliefs, and commitments concerning the nature of reality, the basis for human flourishing, and ideal social norms. These are ideas based on faith as much as they are on reason or science. Personally, I think “religious” is a pretty good word for that, even if we’re not talking about formal organized religious groups or particular theological traditions.

The way I see it, though, people who share the same religion still disagree about key culture-war issues. For proof, we don’t need to look any further than the Veep’s office. Does Mike Pence represent conservative evangelical Protestantism? The community of Taylor University says both yes and no. And, as I argued recently in WaPo about Karen Pence’s lame defense of her anti-LGBTQ school, there is not a single, undisputed “orthodox” rule about proper social policy for LGBTQ people. Plenty of conservative evangelical Protestants are plenty “orthodox,” yet they disagree with the Pences on these issues.

So to me, it seems achingly obvious why some conservatives might want to redefine political disagreements as religious ones: For at least half a century now, politically conservative people have tried to insist that only their politically conservative version of religion is the true version of religion. They have argued that people who disagree with them cannot possibly be true Christians or Muslims or whatever.

is segregation scriptural

There was more than theology at play then, and there is now…

If real, “orthodox” Christianity insists on racial segregation, for example, as Bob Jones Sr. famously argued in 1960, then the US government has no right to demur. If real, “orthodox” Christianity requires belief in a literal six-day flood and a recent creation of humanity, for example, as Ken Ham famously argues today, then evangelicals have no business questioning it.

Just like questions of LGBTQ rights, however, neither of those ideas are really as simple as conservatives like to think. Debates about them divide people who share the same religious backgrounds. The cultural battles over racism, creationism, and sexuality are not battles between people who have different religions. They are fiercest between people who SHARE religious ideas but have different ideas about public policy.

So are America’s culture wars “a religious dispute?” Only if we use a tortuous definition of the phrase. To say that conservative positions on sexuality, race, or gender are just being “orthodox” only makes sense as a political strategy. As an actual description of the divides we face on such issues, it doesn’t help at all.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  April 28, 2019

    I see them as primarily religious disputes, since I see my own positions on culture-war issues as primarily based on my religious outlook. The fact that other Catholics disagree with me on such issues is neither here nor there. I see Catholics who favor e.g. abortion or gay marriage as either not serious about their faith, or as having adopted a modernistic version of Catholicism that has been gutted of its traditional meaning.

  2. Patrick Halbrook

     /  April 28, 2019

    I continue to stand by my previous comments, though I’m wondering what unstated assumptions you and I are bringing to this discussion that appear to be causing us to talk past each other (which may also be an indication of the complexity and perhaps also the importance of the issue). What do you think? (I’d also be curious to know your thoughts on the Joseph Bottum essay I linked to–or perhaps you’d just reiterate the points you made above?)

    • Thanks for the reply. I know that a big part of the unstated assumptions that is guiding my reading of French’s and Bottum’s arguments is my current work with my creationism book. When it comes to American creationism, both today and in the later twentieth century, radicals on both sides (i.e. young-earthers and anti-religious atheists) portray the debate as a simple, stark question of Real Christianity vs. Atheism. It’s not. Most people are in the middle, and when pundits paint a picture of their opposition as fake bugbears–cartoonish monstrosities scheming to destroy all that is right and good–our whole society is harmed.
      So my knee-jerk reaction is to disagree when someone insists that we face a black-and-white division between real, traditional, “orthodox” Christianity and an aggressive anti-religion that mixes BLM and LGBTQ with a dash of Bernie. We don’t. There aren’t two simple religious sides to pick from. There are a great, healthy mix and there always have been. People can be creationist, anti-racist, Jewish, Democratic, free-marketeers. They can be gun-toting, pro-life, secular Republicans.
      To insist that our culture wars are a religious dispute implies that politics and religion are somehow logically linked, that there is somehow a naturally “conservative” position that unites ideas about race, sexuality, taxes, and everything else. I think it is important for all of us to fight the tendency to retreat to such pre-prepared intellectual silos. Progressives, for instance, need to be open to the idea that the Duke lacrosse team might not have perpetrated the crimes of which it was accused. Conservatives need to recognize that people can be sincere and devout while still thinking that racism is the most important problem facing our society. Etc.
      When it comes to the arguments raised by Bottum, I wholeheartedly agree that some of the current campus talk sounds a lot like theology. I’ve called it the “impulse to orthodoxy.” What I resist, however, is the temptation to define away secular activism by calling it a degraded version of Christian thinking. To my mind, that tactic is unconvincing. In its reverse form, it is used by atheists such as Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins to de-legitimize religious thinking, and it is no more valid when they do it. That is, atheists say religion is just a tic, a delusion. Arguments like that only serve to belittle the opposition without really making any other point about them. So what if religion IS just a psychological quirk? So what if secular activism IS just a degraded version of Christian thinking? I can see no point to those arguments other than to insult, so I don’t find them helpful or convincing.
      As for French’s earlier piece, I see the same problems there as with his later statements. His goal seems utterly transparent to me, namely to over-simplify the sides in our culture wars to good guys and bad guys, Good Religion vs. Bad Religion. I agree with him, for instance, when he concludes,

      Identifying intersectionality and the secular focus on social justice as fundamentally religious impulses helps us identify the magnitude of our national polarization.

      Indeed, I think French’s main goal here is to “identify the magnitude of our national polarization,” but I think he is heedless (or reckless?) about the facts of the case. I don’t think he really hopes to figure out how polarized America is about religion. Rather, he wants to convince people that America IS polarized, that there are only two sides to the issue, that all disagreements can best be understood on theological grounds. And I think that is hooey.
      (Sorry for the absurd length here.)

      • Patrick Halbrook

         /  April 29, 2019

        Most of these points I can definitely agree with. I am, to some degree, reading into David French my own nuances and assuming that he holds those as well; that may or may not, of course, be the actual case. As a good journalist, French does no doubt over-simplify his case quite a bit, perhaps too much.

        I do want to throw out some nuances/observations that I think need to be inserted into the conversation:

        – I believe using phrases like “the impulse to orthodoxy,” referring to political ideologies as having “fundamentally religious impulses,” and referring to political arguments as “fundamentally religious disputes” does help shed a lot of light on the nature of much of the culture wars. I’d also add that if we can use the term “religion” the same way we use it in the phrase “American Civil Religion,” then perhaps we can also use it in cases like these–as long as we provide the proper qualifications. But I definitely agree that blanket statements implying the culture wars are about nothing more than religion are misleading.

        – We should beware of over-emphasizing religion’s role in cultural disputes, but we should also be equally wary of under-emphasizing its role. If we respond to French’s alleged error by asserting that religion is nothing more than a façade to cover up what’s really going on, we still risk over-simplifying the situation. The culture war may be more than religious in nature, but that does not make it less. (Mark Noll’s book “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” keeps coming to my mind as an instance of treating a historical dispute as simultaneously cultural and religious, assessing both factors with the utmost seriousness).

        – I don’t quite get the following reasoning process: “A” says that he believes “X” for religious reasons, but “B” says he adheres to the same religion and believes “Y” instead of “X”; besides, “A” also believes new idea “Z” that at some point was not the orthodox option. Therefore, “A” must be arbitrarily choosing belief “X” from questionable and probably bigoted motives, and the whole thing never had to do with religion after all. And, as for the fact that “X” was considered the only orthodox position for nearly two millennia, that is totally irrelevant. (Please correct me if I’ve terribly butchered your arguments and have missed something. However, that’s the line of argument I’ve been reading, and I don’t find it particularly convincing, as one might reach any number of other reasonable conclusions.)

        – On another note, if you’ve never come across Herbert Schlossberg’s book “Idols for Destruction,” I think you’d find it interesting. It was written in the 1970s and I think it’s a fascinating example of an evangelical analysis of American culture that portrays all conflicts as basically theological. While the author is more critical of liberalism, he doesn’t seem all that fond of conservatism either. In fact, he seems pretty pessimistic about American politics in general, so his motive seems to come from somewhere else.

  3. Agellius

     /  April 30, 2019

    ‘“A” says that he believes “X” for religious reasons, but “B” says he adheres to the same religion and believes “Y” instead of “X” besides, “A” also believes new idea “Z” that at some point was not the orthodox option. Therefore, “A” must be arbitrarily choosing belief “X” from questionable and probably bigoted motives, and the whole thing never had to do with religion after all. And, as for the fact that “X” was considered the only orthodox position for nearly two millennia, that is totally irrelevant.’

    That’s more or less how I read Adam’s argument too, that because there’s no monolithic orthodoxy, nor a straight-down-the-line correspondence between orthodox Christianity and modern conservatism, therefore conservative allegiance is not based on religion, but in fact it may be the other way around, that religious choices are based on political and cultural leanings.

    You say “There aren’t two simple religious sides to pick from.” That’s fine, but it doesn’t follow that it’s not a religious dispute.

    “To insist that our culture wars are a religious dispute implies that politics and religion are somehow logically linked.” But a lot of people’s politics and their religion are logically linked. Mine certainly are. I don’t endorse the Republican platform all the way down the line, but to the extent to which I do, it’s because it aligns better with my religion than the Democratic platform does. It’s been my observation that modernist, liberal Catholics are overwhelmingly politically liberal as well; the two fit hand-in-glove.

    This article [https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/] contains a chart showing a correlation between how often one attends religious services, and how liberal or conservative one votes. This chart is not limited to Christians. But even more interesting is the chart in this article [https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/catholic/party-affiliation/] titled “Belief in absolute standards for right and wrong among Catholics by political party.” While most other subjective categories showed only marginal differences among Catholics of different political persuasions, the belief in absolute right and wrong shows a strong lean towards the Republican party. The same with regard to views on homosexuality and gay marriage.

    To me this is where the correlation is: People who believe in objective truth and morality tend strongly towards conservatism, and this belief is also characteristic of those adhering to traditional orthodoxy. Rarely do you find political liberals at, for example, the traditional mass in Latin; whereas among Catholics at large, i.e. those who attend the modern, vernacular, guitars-and-bongos mass, there are more Democrats than Republicans (as shown in the first chart of the second linked article); “Spirit of Vatican II” and all that.

    I think this is where the big divide is: Between those who believe God made things a certain way on purpose and intends us to conform ourselves to his will, and those who hold that human will is supreme, trumping not only external, received standards of morality but even objective physical human nature. Objective truth versus subjective. Does man submit to religion or does religion submit to man. I think it’s the very crux of religious disagreement in the modern age. This is precisely why conservative Catholics feel they have more in common with devout evangelicals and Mormons, and even orthodox Jews, than with liberal Catholics. Yes it cuts across denominational lines, nevertheless the dispute is nothing if not religious.

  4. Agellius

     /  April 30, 2019

    All that being said, I think French’s point is more along the lines of, if after centuries of wars of religion, we finally learned to tolerate mutually exclusive religious views in order to live together civilly, how can we not manage to tolerate mere political differences, even if they are taken as seriously as religious views used to be? Can such disagreements be *more* serious than religious differences were centuries ago? Not likely. Yet are we less capable of tolerance than our more religious ancestors were?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s